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Being A Man… in the Lousy Modern World
Robert Twigger
London: Phoenix, 2002.
£7.99, 200 pages, ISBN 0-75381-378-5.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen


Being A Man… in the Lousy Modern World is also known as Being A Man: Male Rites of Passage in the Lousy Modern World, but it should have been entitled Being A White British Heterosexual Middle-Class Male… Living in the Lousiest Corner of British Suburbia. Robert Twigger is a poet and the author of Angry White Pyjamas: An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Riot Police, apparently known in the US as Angry White Pajamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons from the Tokyo Riot Police (1997). Being A Man (capital A Twigger's) is a funny book and can provide substantial entertainment, but it will irritate many academics.

The book is dedicated to four males and begins with the significant choice of an Emerson quote: "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." It takes place in BBQ land over one single day: Twigger's wife is about to give birth (any minute now) and Twigger organizes a barbecue party at his suburban home. Divided into time slots, headed "9.10 a.m." or "2.00 p.m.", it is also subdivided into sections, bearing titles such as "Playing in the Risk Zone", "Brain Chemistry and Natural Inheritance", or "Kid's Stuff", and it vaguely observes some sort of stream-of-consciousness pattern. I have yet to determine if some of those titles are parodies of pretentious titles you might find in more academic books, or if they are to be taken at face-value and thus (more or less self-consciously) just pretentious. "Hemingway Paradox" (sic) and "The Hemingway Complex," for instance, greatly disappoint, leading you as they do to expect absorbing critical insights, but instead delivering anecdotal observations. There is so much to say about Hemingway and masculinity that it is frustrating to see the topic disposed of over a couple of pages—very debatably, moreover.

Twigger (or at any rate the character/narrator Twigger) has a brother, who is repeatedly used to provide contrast. The reader easily grasps the message: Twigger's brother is much more macho than Twigger, much more prejudiced, much more entangled in society's worst Neanderthal masculinity dictates. When his brother learns that Twigger's wife is pregnant, he asks: "Feel like a man at last, do you?" (41) This is all very nice, except that for all his posturing, Twigger really embraces throughout the book a great many of the tyrannical gender roles he only superficially deconstructs, while joyfully paying lip-service to even more of the same—seemingly without realizing what he's doing. Or maybe I'm naïve.

Admittedly, Being A Man was not written for Gender Studies specialists. But when you give such a title to your book and you choose to address the kind of issues Twigger tackles, you have to expect some response from feminist academia, especially if you play sociologist on every other page. Twigger's main problem is that he occasionally comes up with seemingly constructionist arguments, only to debunk them a few lines down. Now, I am quite prepared to accept that many people's beliefs when it comes to gender alternate between essentialism and constructionism, but if they want to retain a modicum of coherence, they remain essentialist in this or that domain, and constructionist in others. Or at worst, they establish that they believe some character trait (the way one handles desire, for example) depends partly on nature and partly on nurture. But it is annoying when the same author seems to change his mind about such matters in the course of one book. And he is certainly not very careful with his vocabulary, as when he writes:

The very essence of masculinity lies in performance not in show, in real ability not talk, in doing not sounding off in the pub afterwards. That's the Hemingway Paradox—the more you talk about masculinity the further you get away from it. (44)

For some of us this is absolutely hilarious, and the uses of "essence", "masculinity", "performance" (especially), "show", and "real" demonstrate a total ignorance of and/or disregard for forty years of progress in the Humanities. Again, if Twigger merely told his story and amused his readers, I wouldn't object. But he does indulge in sweeping sociological pronouncements which are frequently rather dubious. He writes for example: "We live in a society that emphasizes the similarity between the sexes, not the differences." (4) I'm prepared to admit that society has gradually diminished its emphasis on differences since the sixties, but I certainly wouldn't go as far as Twigger! Then he writes: "It makes sense to say that the new division of society is between the young and the old. This has replaced the old division between male and female." (15) Ageism certainly has increased, but that's as far as I'm willing to go. His distinction between "male-being" and "male-proving" is interestingly and amusingly put, even though some of us think there is no such thing as "male-being" but only various degrees of "male-proving"; but what are we to make of passages such as this?

There are some activities that men just like doing: shooting, playing football, building shelves, visiting old battlefields, collecting pen knives, digging tiny irrigation ditches on the beach, tightening bicycle spokes, carving meat, opening champagne bottles so that either the cork flies out or expertly so that hardly a sound is made, messing about in boats, sawing wood—the list of these harmless, low-key activities could be endless. The point is that there doesn't have to be anything competitive about them, men simply enjoy the activity. Of course women, too, can enjoy these things, but mostly they don't. (39)

If it is done tongue-in-cheek, the warning sign is not visible enough. How traumatic for me; all my life I thought I was a man, and suddenly I realize I must be a woman, since I do not enjoy a single activity on that list. Maybe there is something wrong with my genes. Those activities come under "male-being", and I won't even mention the ones that apparently come under "male-proving": they are too gruesome for words. There are however, it must be said, well-written and funny reminiscences about the way Twigger struggled with class and gender, about Bangkok prostitutes, and about all sorts of challenges he set himself in his youth. But he has a tendency to universalize white British middle-class concerns, as I intimated in my first paragraph, although he occasionally checks himself, as it were, reminding himself in passing that "of course class and culture have to fit in somewhere" (76). The sections actually dealing with rites of passage are a bit disappointing, and far too "desexualized", although there is an enjoyable section, "Hemingway's Tool", to do with the penis sizes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

At the end, Twigger quotes a Japanese calligraphy teacher (not verbatim), who told him that "a path to knowledge doesn't go in a straight line, it goes in a spiral, round and around, constantly crossing the same turf again and again, but each time moving a little further out, getting a wider perspective, seeing the same thing from a different viewpoint." (187) Is this, I wonder, his way of apologizing to those of his readers who, misguided by the title and the blurb, expected something else? The baby—a boy of course—is born, and Twigger can happily start "bonding with [his] son" (188). This reader can only rejoice for him; I was never bored reading the book, and laughed on several occasions, for what it's worth.

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